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Inside the villages suffering Russia's retaliation as Ukraine counterstrikes with U.S. heavy weapons

On the front lines of Mykolaiv
Commanders, medics and Ukrainian residents trapped on front lines 02:38

Near Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine — A massive series of explosions earlier this week at an airbase on Crimea sent shockwaves far beyond the Russian-occupied peninsula off Ukraine's southern Black Sea coast. New satellite images appear to show deep craters and scorched earth, and the Ukrainian government didn't dispute claims that its forces destroyed at least nine Russian warplanes in a strike.

The huge blasts sent stunned beachgoers, who were relaxing well over 100 miles from the nearest front line in the war, running for safety. 

Russia Ukraine
Smoke is seen rising in the distance from the beach at Saky, on Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, after explosions rocked a Russian military airbase near Novofedorivka, Crimea, August 9, 2022. UGC via AP

It was a "deep strike" behind Russia's lines for the Ukrainian forces, retired U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer Hal Kempfer told CBS News.

"Frankly, that changes the front across the board," he told CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D'Agata. "If they can continue the momentum, if they can continue to do deep strikes, if they continue to make gains across the Kherson Oblast, they might be able to push all the way across that southern flank."

Russia Ukraine War
A satellite image provided by Planet Labs PBC shows destroyed Russian aircraft at the Saki Air Base, after explosions on August 9, 2022, on the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula. Russia seized control of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine and unilaterally annexed it in 2014. Planet Labs PBC/AP

The strike on the airbase drew a quick, brutal response from Russia. Vladimir Putin's forces retaliated with increased shelling and missile attacks on towns and villages across southern Ukraine. In one of them, D'Agata met local commander Roman Kulyk, proudly wearing a U.S. flag on his Ukrainian uniform.

He told CBS News he and his troops were in a "catastrophic situation" trying to hold the front line near the southern port city of Mykolaiv, facing a Russian onslaught and running out of weapons fast.

Then howitzer artillery pieces arrived from the U.S., and he said they helped save his soldiers' lives.

U.S. trains Ukrainians on howitzer artillery 02:02

The fighting along the battered front line in southern Ukraine south has been brutal, with the two sides pushing each other back and forth for weeks.

A children's playground in the village bears the scars of fighting in the virtually abandoned village, left trapped in a no-man's land between the furthest point the Russian invaders have managed to reach, and Ukraine's forces, determined to hold onto the territory.

Anna Shepel, 76, was one of few residents in the village when D'Agata and his team arrived. After evacuating in the first days of fighting, she returned to find her home nearly destroyed, with its windows smashed out and the walls peppered by shrapnel.

Anna Shepel shows CBS News' Charlie D'Agata shell damage to the gate of her home in a village north of Mykolaiv, just several miles from an active front line in Ukraine's battle against Russia's invading forces, August 10, 2022.  CBS News

"I thought I would have stroke" she told CBS News about the moment she came back to find her home in such a desperate state. "I was paralyzed." She told D'Agata people had replaced her windows three times since she returned, but they keep getting blown out by Russian shelling.

"I wish that the Russians felt what I felt that moment, every minute, every hour," she said.

As Ukrainian forces prepare for a massive counterattack in the south to try to retake the occupied Kherson region, momentum may be on their side. But even with the steady influx of weapons from the U.S. and its allies, soldiers and civilians alike are bracing for what they know will be a grueling battle ahead.

Like thousands of other Ukrainians who either feel they've nowhere else to go, or flat out refuse to be uprooted by Russia's invasion, Anna Shepel told CBS News she intended to stay right where she was.  

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